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The Wine Column

The Nose Knows

By Mary Jane Reiter

SWIRL, SNIFF AND SIP. Anyone who drinks wine has probably come across those terms. Perhaps you've seen someone, nose deep in wine glass, taking a good long sniff before they taste? While it may look like a ritual reserved for wine snobs, it's not. Performing these three simple actions will unleash a host of sensory experiences that will increase your appreciation of wine.

Our sense of smell is closely related to our sense of taste. That's why it's difficult to enjoy a fine steak dinner when you have a cold. Your nasal passages are compromised blocking the aromas of the grilled meat. So the same is true with wine. It's important to smell the wine as it will enhance the taste and your overall enjoyment.

When wine is swirled in the glass, its bouquet or aroma is released. The wine's nose, as it's called, reveals its components or flavor profile. Try this with your next glass of either red or white wine. Tilt your glass and put your nose deep into it. Can you smell big, jammy fruit such as black cherries or raspberries? Is the fruit aroma more delicate like orange blossoms or lemon? Is there spice such as cinnamon or cloves, or a hint of vanilla, butter or toast? Can you discern an earthiness or something akin to mushrooms?

Think of a glass of wine as a bouquet of flowers with each different fragrance competing for attention. Savor the aromas you've identified and build your own wine vocabulary for both red and white wines. There are no wrong descriptors. This is a subjective process, and your experience will be unique to you.

Now sip the wine to determine its structure. Allow it to coat the sides of the mouth and tongue on the way down. Notice the various sensations on the tongue, mouth and in the back of the throat. Is the wine dry, sweet or slightly sweet? Do the sides of the tongue feel fizzy; are they tingling? This indicates the level of acidity in the wine. Wine needs acid otherwise it will feel flabby or flat. Does your mouth feel dry or puckered? This is tannin, mostly associated with red wine. If that "dry" feeling is too intense, the wine may need to age longer, as in the case of a youthful cabernet sauvignon. Or it may need to "breathe" allowing time for air to reach the wine to "open" it for maximum enjoyment. 

After judging the acidity and tannins, feel how long the wine lingers on the tongue. Does it fall off quickly (short finish) or stay around awhile? The longer the better as this indicates a better crafted wine.

The various aromas and structure are clues to the type of varietal and country or region of origin. For instance, a California chardonnay will taste different than one from France. This is due, among other things, to the differences in climate, soil and grape growing conditions. California has a longer growing season, for instance, allowing the grapes to stay on the vines longer, producing more fruit-forward wines. In France, with a shorter season, grapes are picked sooner, resulting in less fruit on the palate and earthier characteristics. There are even differences between California regions that produce chardonnay.

You can understand these regional differences by a simple and fun experiment. Purchase several bottles of chardonnay (or any wine) from each of two different areas, or appellations, in California. Choose a price range and year so the comparison is balanced. Monterey County, Sonoma, Mendocino or Paso Robles are a few examples. Taste each wine and notice the similarities and differences. Can you determine a flavor profile for the wines from each appellation? While it's true, the winemaker's skills affect the outcome of the final product, there should be underlying flavors that are unique to the region.

Try this again with another wine, but this time take an international approach selecting varietals from Chile, New Zealand, Argentina or Australia. You'll be surprised at how much fun learning to taste can be.

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